The Case for Excellence

This piece was published in a college newspaper

It’s taken me five semesters to unlearn and relearn just exactly how to learn.

I’ve always preferred speed over excellence because, presumably, speed ensures a steep learning curve. Excellence, on the other hand, means mastery, and mastery means practice and effort for marginal improvement — going from 95 to 97 to 98. Obviously, the learning curve is not as steep as it is for when you’re going from 0 to 50 to 80.

In this information age, the volume of data is expanding at an exponential rate. On the graph of human knowledge, the gap between what we can learn and the amount of information out there to be learned is widening every second. Therefore, as can be rightly deduced, perfection in understanding data may not be as important as the speed and (decent) accuracy with which one understands that data.

There’s a fair point to be made for this: It may be true in the world out there. However, the speed-over-excellence approach may not be the right strategy for those in school. The entire point of being in school is that we prepare ourselves for life in the real world and build a solid understanding of the fundamentals and concepts of our respective fields of study. To be able to effectively exist in the world, strong underlying basics are a prerequisite. If the basics are weak, speed in the real world will only amount to ineffectiveness.

Take the metaphor of a building under construction. What would happen if construction workers at a building site did not perfect the foundation of the structure being built? What if they built it to, say, 70 percent perfection and moved on to the first, second or however many floors? The building would be unsound regardless of how well they constructed anything else above the “weak” foundation. So if the fourth floor collapsed a few years later, what would the diagnosis be? Would it be that the construction of the fourth floor was done poorly? In reality, the root cause of the problem would be the imperfect construction of the foundation.

Our fate will not be much different if we don’t pursue excellence right now. We may get through college with a degree, but if our fundamentals are unsound, our professional lives will be at risk of collapse. The point deserves reiteration: If your life is like a building and you carry yourself through with mediocrity at the start, then you will be susceptible to collapse later on.

So how can you improve, given that you have time left at school? (Sorry, seniors.) We’re at a time in our lives when we can revisit old concepts without the pressures of professional work life. So do that. Revisit old concepts. Let me give you one example: Khan Academy. It’s an online portal that provides tools (including unlimited problem sets) on every math concept from kindergarten basics to advanced calculus. If you’re an economics or a business major and you’re not the kind who digs math, Khan Academy is an awesome tool to use — and it’s free.

It’s that time of the semester when we all would do well to look back at what we have done with a critical eye. You’re paying this university big money to learn effectively — but a lot of it has to do with you.

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